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Colts’ Ballard patient, sticking to process in rebuilding effort

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Impatient Colts fans will have to wait, GM Chris Ballard is sticking to his process during rebuilding effort

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Peyton Manning brought a passion for football to Indianapolis. He made the game fun to watch, filled up the RCA Hoosier Dome, is responsible for a brand new state of the art stadium, and led the Colts to a championship. The Colts were one of the best regular season teams in NFL history and made winning 10 games per year look easy. The only franchise in the NFL who rivaled the Colts dominance during the Manning era was the New England Patriots.

When Manning missed a whole season and owner Jim Irsay chose to move on to draft Andrew Luck, Colts fans held onto their passion. In what appeared to be hitting the lottery twice, Indianapolis had the future of the franchise and arguably the most dominant college quarterback to enter the draft since... well... Peyton Manning. The stars were aligning for something special and Irsay clearly believed he could take the young rookie and still compete for a championship in the short term.

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It turns out that continuing that run under new management and with a rookie quarterback is hard to do. Luck was brilliant before — and even for a time after — he hurt his shoulder almost three years ago. However, failure to capitalize in the draft and failure to sign free agents who were able to sustain starter-level production led to back-to-back 8-8 seasons, three straight seasons without a playoff berth, and a 4-12 record that was good enough to give Indianapolis the third overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Despite this, there were times that the 2017 Colts seemed like they were just a player or two away from getting back to their winning ways. Their fourth quarter performances were historically bad and blown second-half leads were a constant. The offense never hit on all cylinders and completely stalled late in games. The coaching staff needed to go and, as predicted, Ballard and Irsay made that move shortly after the season ended.

There was a belief that with Andrew Luck, this team could have won more games. Good enough to reach the playoffs? Maybe... but definitely good enough to be competitive and seemingly only a few pieces away from taking the next step.

With plenty of cap space available to make acquisitions, Colts fans were ready for Ballard to break open the piggy bank and lure in some big fish to turn the franchise around.

It didn’t happen.

Somehow, armed with a treasure chest full of gold coins, with a coaching staff he picked out himself, and with a chance to put his own stamp on the horseshoe, Ballard chose an entirely different route. He has consistently shared his philosophy and made it a point that building a team through free agency is not the way to go. He explained that establishing a culture and putting together a cohesive locker room is of paramount importance and that no amount of money can be thrown at players in free agency to get there.

Last season he was calculated and not in a rush to find the players who made the most sense for Indianapolis. Johnathan Hankins was the biggest name to join the team through free agency, he joined the team late in the process, and his contract included all of the guaranteed money in 2017. By no means was this a blockbuster deal.

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Instead, it is the calculated moves Ballard made that appeared to pay the biggest dividends.

Jabaal Sheard and John Simon both were difference-making players on relative bargain contracts at their respective positions. Margus Hunt was a presumed camp body who became a key cog in the defensive line rotation and made an impact in numerous games. Al Woods did not attract a great deal of attention and many thought he was a rotational player at best — he was a day one starter and helped the Colts run defense considerably.

Pierre Desir ended up starting in the secondary after he was a cut-down day acquisition at the beginning of the season. Kenny Moore also joined the team following cuts, after originally signing with the Patriots as an undrafted free agent. After drawing the ire of Colts fans with mental errors on special teams early in the season, Moore stepped up considerably and even had an impact on defense. Undrafted free agent Deyshawn Bond started the year at center and impressed in his limited work before he was placed on injured reserve.

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The point is, no blockbuster deals happened. The fan base felt restless and irritated that Ballard didn’t do more. They weren’t remotely satiated until he spent over $10 million on Hankins. That same group of fans is watching the same man do the same thing and find themselves just as restless as a season ago.

While this approach to building the roster can get under the skin of an impatient fan base, it also could be doing something that the franchise must do before buckets full of cash will get the team anywhere. The team must find an identity.

Right now, especially after 2017, this team doesn’t have one.

There is a blue-collar contingent that is starting to come together though. Matthias Farley comes to mind. Clayton Geathers coming back from neck surgery to rejoin his team and get back to work belongs in that group.

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Nate Hairston going from a mid-round pick to full-season starter and not giving up a touchdown until late in the season. Bond and Moore should be on that list. Sheard was nothing but blue collar even late in the year when the team had nothing to play for. Simon is another guy who brings his lunch pail to the office every day and gets his work done. Everything we can find on Denico Autry says the same thing.

These are all players who will work hard. They put team above self. They respond when they’re called upon.

There is also a growing youth movement that is going on. Hooker, Wilson, Hairston are all there together in the secondary. Geathers and Farley are both only 25 years old — Hooker is 21. Woods is the only defensive lineman over 26 years old.

You can be sure that other areas of the team are about to get much younger after the draft as well.

Following the Ballard line of thinking, once a team identity forms and the expectation of what it means to be a member of the Indianapolis Colts spread through the NFL community, handing out big contracts and landing players at key positions who can push you over the top will make more sense. This young team must come together and form a cohesive and competitive core that is ready to challenge the rest of the league. Maybe then Ballard will be satisfied to flood the market with money.

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I have already shared that it is my thought that the right philosophy requires some kind of balance between what I perceive to be Ballard’s and Grigson’s philosophies. I’m not entirely convinced that signing a hard-nosed Ohio State kid like Andrew Norwell (who is grossly overpaid) would have derailed any chance to put together a cohesive locker room. I’m not entirely convinced that spending a little too much money on a player like Anthony Hitchens who has improved every year and is familiar with defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus’ defensive scheme would be counterproductive during a broader rebuild.

However, Ballard was hired as the new General Manager for the Indianapolis Colts with a highly detailed inches thick binder and a blueprint and philosophy for where he wanted to go. He shared that process with Jim Irsay. Outside of a hiccup in his first head coaching search, it feels like everything is going according to his plan (whether we like it or not).

You can expect that more free agent moves are still coming. You can likely expect that only one or two of them will involve a player who the fan base immediately recognizes. For an impatient fan base who expects to win, Ballard won’t be able to afford to look back and wish he did something different for too long. Don’t expect that to change a thing.

Ballard is going to stick with his philosophy and, at least for the time being, Colts fans are going to have to get used to seeing more players join the roster through the draft and the lower of mid tiers of free agency. He hasn’t given any indication that will change in the near future.